Last year, I visited the shrine of Pellevoisin in France. Because the Eurostar Train was severely delayed, I was given a free ticket in compensation – but the condition was that I had to book a journey to Paris, Lille or Brussels within one year. So I decided to spend a few days in Brussels and visit some of the shrines of Belgium. On 7 March 2013, I travelled to Banneux.
Following the apparitions of Our Lady at Beauraing, from 29 November 1932 until 3 January 1933, there were many copycat claims of the Mother of God appearing elsewhere in Belgium. Most were rejected as spurious by the church authorities, but one had the ring of truth. A 12-year-old girl, Mariette Beco, claimed that the Mother of God had appeared to her in the village of Banneux eight times from 15 January 1933 until 2 March of the same year. During the second apparition (18th January), Mariette was directed to place her hands in a pool of water where a local spring welled up. The Lady said: “This spring is reserved for me.”
The following day, the Lady appeared again, and when Mariette asked after her identity, the Lady declared herself “the Virgin of the Poor.” The Virgin then led the child to the spring. Mariette asked the Lady to clarify for whom the spring was reserved, and the reply came: “this spring is reserved for all nations… for the sick.” The next day, the Lady asked for “a small chapel” – and then the visions ceased for three weeks.
During further visions, on February 11, 15 and 20, the Lady declared that she has “come to relieve suffering” and asked Mariette to “pray hard.” The Lady’s parting words, on 2 March, were: “I am the Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Pray much.” The Virgin then laid her hands on her and said Adieu.
In May 1942, Bishop Kerkhofs of the Diocese of Liège provisionally recognised that the apparitions were genuine, and the Vatican added its seal of approval in 1947. Mariette Beco lived until 2 December 2011, dying at the age of 90. Three years earlier, at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the visions, she released a statement saying: “I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail. Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”
If you wish to travel to Banneux, you can consult the shrine’s official website. It is a two-hour journey from Brussels; you can travel as far as Liège by rail, but must then take a bus to Banneux. On my pilgrimage, not knowing where to disembark, I waited until the road signs indicated that we had entered Banneux, and stopped the bus as soon as I saw a church on the roadside. It looked like the Banneux shrine had a very small complex – but in fact what I had seen was a row of pilgrim hostels and houses of prayer.
Pictured right, is the first building I saw – the chapel of the first hostel. Just along the road from it, and pictured left, is the House of Prayer of the Maranatha Community. In between the two is a nursing home named for “the Virgin of the Poor.”
I stopped for a while to pray in the chapel of the House of Prayer, and then walked around the other buildings until it became clear that this was not the main shrine complex. On the wall outside one of the buildings, a small memorial commemorated Albert van den Berg, who gave his life protecting Jews and Christians during the Nazi occupation. Note the statues within the grounds as well as the plaques on the wall!
I walked on, following the bus route, and after five minutes entered a more built-up part of Banneux with hotels, bars and shops selling religious goods. Beyond the commercial street I discovered the protected sanctuary area.
The first chapel at Banneux (pictured, right) was built within months of the apparitions. Today the sites of the first apparition and the spring are protected within an extensive woodland sanctuary, which allows pilgrims to walk around the grounds prayerfully and where several indoor and outdoor arenas are available for Mass; one arena is directly behind the spring.
Statues of Our Lady of Banneux could easily be confused with the well-known depiction of Our Lady of Lourdes. St Bernadette and Mariette Beco both saw Our Lady with a blue sash, and a golden rose on at least one foot – but at Lourdes, both feet were visible, whereas Mariette only saw Mary’s right foot. So if a statue looks like Our Lady of Lourdes, but has the left foot hidden and is not crowned with the words “I am the Immaculate Conception” then look again – it may in fact be a depiction of Our Lady as she revealed herself at Banneux.
As with Lourdes, so the focus at Banneux is on prayer for healing, a place of pilgrimage for the sick of all nations. Within the grounds, a building called the ‘Chapel of the Nations’ has been made available for Orthodox Christian worship and is richly decorated with icons.
There are many depictions of Our Lady of Banneux within the shrine grounds. The statue, left, is the standard image, rendered in white stone. The design on the right is rather different – it reminds us that twice during the series of apparitions, Our Lady laid her hands on Mariette’s head and then blessed her with the sign of the Cross. There is also a statue of Our Lady of Banneux in the Cathedral at Liège.
Our Lady’s clear intention at Banneux was that people from the nations should come there to pray for healing. Near the exit from the shrine grounds are two large noticeboards filled with votive plaques from grateful people acknowledging answers to prayer. The dates on the plaques seem to run from 2000 to 2006, though they are not all in order. With 220 plaques on each board, this works out at more than one answered and acknowledged prayer per week!
If Beauraing was the Fatima of Belgium, then Banneux is certainly its Lourdes. The only message of the shrine is the explicit call to pray and the implicit invitation for the nations to come in search of healing. Indeed, the hiatus after Mariette’s first four visions ended with the fifth vision on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. Since the Lourdes of Belgium is closer, less busy, and in a country more accommodating of speaking English than the Lourdes of France, perhaps we in Wales should take our sick there on pilgrimage, finding our place among the “invitation to the nations”!
Why would God permit the Blessed Mother to echo both Fatima and Lourdes in Belgium within the space of three months? Why was no other European nation so favoured in the 20th century? To these questions we have no easy answer, save that “God will do whatever God chooses to do.” It is for God, and his servants, to invite us to the wells of grace, and on our part, we are called to make a humble response. The events of Beauraing and Banneux will soon pass out of living memory, but the shrines remain, a living link to the past, to the Lord, and to the graces God continues to bestow on his faithful people through the prayers of the Blessed Mother.